Walmart’s coffee journey leads them to CQI’s Q Program

Every day, thousands of Walmart stores around the world open their doors, providing a wide variety of products to their shoppers. Among the offerings are Walmart’s many private brand items, which are sourced by the company and sold under their name.

These private brand products are the domain of Natalia Kubantseva and Sam Whiteside of Walmart. Natalia’s job is private brands product development, working with suppliers to deliver product innovation, core renovation, and product quality for several categories across private brands. Sam’s focus is private brand sourcing, managing the supply chain for private brand items in Walmart’s packaged goods department.

Natalia and Sam have worked with private brand product categories such as breakfast snacks and cereal. Three years ago, they began working with a new product category that provided them with a sensory experience unlike the others: coffee. As they started learning more about the coffee world, they both embarked on a learning experience that led them to Coffee Quality Institute’s Q Program, and ultimately to earning their Q Grader certification. Here, we explore their journey and look at how the Q has helped enrich Walmart’s coffee program.

Walmart’s private brand coffee program has two main areas of focus: providing customers with the quality they expect at an affordable price, and sourcing coffee in a sustainable manner. To accomplish the latter goal, Walmart is aiming to partner with sustainability experts that will certify that 100% of the company's sourced private brand coffee comes from sustainable supply chains. "Through these partnerships, our goal is to take care of the supply chain all the way back to the farmers, striving to ensure they can earn a good living from the coffee they grow for generations to come,” Natalia and Sam say.

As Natalia and Sam learned more about coffee’s origin and the importance of quality, their interest in the product deepened. They were guided in their coffee journey by a key partner, Ellen Jordan Reidy of America’s Food Technologies (AMFOTEK); Natalia and Sam work closely with AMFOTEK to ensure Walmart’s coffee quality is maintained. “During our time spent with coffee professionals, like Ellen, we found their passion contagious and our passion for coffee grew, so we wanted to learn and challenge ourselves to learn even more about quality,” say Natalia and Sam.

To accomplish this mission, Natalia and Sam set a goal of earning their Q Grader certification, the accreditation from CQI that enables coffee professionals around the world to speak a common language of coffee quality. “Through our work within coffee sourcing, we fell in love with the coffee industry and the infinite learning opportunities,” they say. “We felt it important to challenge ourselves to the highest level of identifying and grading coffee quality, and honing our sensory capabilities.”

Knowing that the Q Grader exam is notoriously difficult, Natalia and Sam rigorously prepared, first by getting tips from coffee experts they work with and others who had passed the Q. “Through their mentorship, we were able to learn about the test and best methods to prepare for the course and exams,” they say. “From their insights, we put together a plan to learn as much as we could about each portion of the exam.”

That plan included purchasing training materials from the Specialty Coffee Association, cupping and scoring multiple coffees in the month leading up to the exam, completing triangulations, analyzing green coffee samples to develop their green-grading skills, and purchasing a Le Nez du Café aroma kit to practice identifying aromas. They also spent time with farmers, cooperatives, researchers, and exporters during their trips to origin, providing them with further coffee knowledge. Additionally, Natalia and Sam say that Walmart offered them crucial support during the time they were preparing for the test. “The support of our leadership both financially and from a time standpoint helped to instill in us that this course was important to the company as well,” they add.

In September 2018, Natalia and Sam traveled to Portland, Ore., to take the weeklong Q Grader course at the Alliance for Coffee Excellence lab, which culminated in them taking the exam. Led by Q Instructor Jodi Weiser, the course covered coffee history, bean grading, cupping protocol, and sensory evaluation, among other topics. “We had a nice balance between lectures and hands-on experience, and it completely changed our view of a cup of coffee,” say Natalia and Sam.

When the time came to take the exam, Natalia and Sam discovered their coffee knowledge was put to the ultimate test. “All portions of the exam were challenging,” they say. "The sensory portion is notoriously frightening, and it certainly proved to be challenging. We were most excited to pass that portion of the exam and have it behind us. The triangulations were challenging as well. We anticipated they may be more easily distinguished, but each of the coffees was very similar.”

Natalia and Sam were up to the challenge, however, and they both passed the exam to earn their Q Grader certification! While they say that their many hours of studying were key to their success, they are also quick to credit the importance of their Q Instructor. “Jodi was instrumental in our success,” they say. “Her expertise, patience, and instruction made learning fun, and enabled us to successfully navigate all the challenging portions of the course.”

Now with the Q Grader exam behind them, Natalia and Sam are eager to put the accreditation to use in their daily work lives. “Q Grader certification is recognized and trusted all around the world,” they say. “As we travel to coffee origins, we might not always be able to communicate the native language of that country, but we always find a common language in coffee thanks to the coffee-grading standards that have been created by CQI. The universal scoring system and coffee language allow us to identify and deliver a delicious and reliable cup of coffee every time.”

Natalia and Sam add that they will now build on what they learned during their Q Grader experience to stay the course on their journey of coffee education. “We are planning to continue our education and build expertise with evaluating different coffee and expanding our vocabulary,” they say.

We at CQI are very happy to hear how the Walmart team used the Q Program to improve their coffee skills, and we’re excited to see more and more coffee companies unleashing the power of the Q for their professional development!

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